updated 7/26/2007 11:03:26 AM ET 2007-07-26T15:03:26

WASHINGTON — If Hillary Clinton wins the Democratic nomination (which, let’s face it, is an increasingly likely “if”), the CNN/YouTube debate will go down as a crucial milestone on her road to the White House. More broadly, folks will credit Clinton — widely criticized at the race’s onset as a wooden, impersonal speaker — with a surprisingly savvy series of early debate performances that won over some of her most ardent skeptics.

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That impression crystallized among media talkers after Monday’s debate. “As it turned out, like every previous Democratic debate, we were left watching Hillary and the Seven Dwarfs,” Nicholas Wapshott wrote Wednesday in the New York Sun. “She was smooth, informed, unflappable and with a touch of humor,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Frank James. “Anytime the leader in the polls comes out of a debate unscathed, she or he is the winner by definition.”

But while Clinton is the biggest benefactor of the campaign’s early launch, one key Republican is pursuing an almost polar-opposite strategy.

While Clinton has spent the early months meticulously courting her party’s netroots and downplaying differences among Democratic candidates, Fred Thompson’s roadmap relies on keeping his would-be candidacy as far above the fray, and outside the spotlight, as possible, for as long as possible. Insiders now say he likely will jump into those well-tested waters sometime in “mid to late September.” But even that timetable appears flexible. “October isn’t completely impossible, no,” said one ally of a Thompson campaign kick-off.

Each strategy is riddled with benefits, and risks. Which one is more likely to succeed?

Anyone who followed her 2000 Senate campaign in New York will tell you Clinton is, in many key ways, following the same game plan that preceded her once-longshot victory in that race. She jumped in early, solidified her base in the City, built support in small gatherings outside the media spotlight and, slowly, even worked to win Republican and independent precincts Upstate. Her plan, both time and labor intensive, prevailed.

This year, she joined the race nearly two years before Election Day, giving her ample time to tend to liberal skeptics and court small groups in early-voting states.

The missing ingredient so far this year is her direct appeals to moderate GOP and independent voters — the national equivalent, say, of Upstate. The glaring difference between the two campaigns is that Clinton faced no serious primary in 2000, allowing her to court political centrists from Day One. Her biggest challenge now, in a year-long primary, is to unite her party’s base, during a high-profile primary battle, while still holding the moderates she’ll need down the road.

All of which is to say that while Clinton, still burdened by large numbers of voters who say they’d never support her, needs the early exposure and extra time to lower her negatives and solidify her base. But every day she does so carries with it the risk that her general-election game plan becomes even more of an uphill climb.

Thompson, meanwhile, faces the opposite problem. He’s drawing increasing levels of skepticism from campaign watchers who interpret his repeated delays as signs he’s not ready to run or, more importantly, be president. But the former Senator is instead trying to prolong what has been a remarkably successful period of water-testing. He is raising money, rising in early-state and national polls and, according to the Boston Globe, has virtually locked up support from the nation’s leading conservative activists.

“It's almost as if the man and the moment met,” Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention told the Globe.

Land’s comment suggests Thompson’s strategy is smarter than it initially seems.

While he conducts a behind-the-scenes courtship of conservative leaders and builds grassroots networks to help him ramp up quickly for early primaries, he has carefully avoided being linked to the uninspiring gaggle of other GOP candidates. More importantly, if he wins the party’s nod, he’s less likely to limp into the general-election campaign burdened by labels like “pro-Bush conservative,” which someone like, say, Mitt Romney might. His relative dearth of time on the trail makes it harder for Democrats to label him, in some ways, and easier for him to chart a course for the middle.

Two candidates with two very different ideas of how to capture their parties’ nominations. Both could be successful. And if they are, what happens then?

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.


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